Before the Curtain Rises

Put your thinking shades on, guys!
Put your thinking shades on, guys! // Sara Miller

Oct. 13, 2013 was an eventful day for Jaime Sunwoo ’14. While the rest of the Yale community was busy reveling in the festivities and free water bottles that came with the inauguration of President Peter Salovey, Sunwoo was sitting in her art studio at 36 Edgewood with a lampshade on her head.

An Art major interested in performance art, Sunwoo had placed the object there as part of the brainstorming process for her senior project. While wearing her new lampshade “hat,” she began thinking about the “coffee house” frequently hosted at the Saybrook Underbrook Theater and considered turning this avant garde outfit into a solo performance.

“I imagined myself doing a lampshade-themed burlesque where I would wear sexy attire and flirt with a bunch of inanimate light fixtures in the room,” she recalled.

That thought was short-lived, but several weeks later, when the Yale Dramatic Association sent out a call for submissions for its spring experimental production, Sunwoo was inspired to revisit the lampshade. At 1 a.m., she met with her friend Austin Jung ’14 in the Saybrook Dining Hall, and together the pair replaced Sunwoo’s original burlesque concept with a tale of everyday objects come to life. Three months following that conversation, Sunwoo and Jung found themselves in the Davenport Auditorium, days away from the premiere of their now-complete play, “Household.”

Everyone is familiar with the story of how Isaac Newton’s theories on gravity were inspired by an apple falling on his head. These tales tend to evoke skepticism because pure coincidence is associated with only miraculous events such as winning the lottery or not having to wait in line at the Elm Street Post Office. But for many of the 11 original student productions being put on this academic year, inspiration really did strike by chance.

But unfortunately for these playwrights, the idea for a play may be the only part of the writing and staging processes where random inspiration is useful. The rest relies on hard work — lots of it. Each play must go through several stages of revision before the production process even begins, and playwrights must sacrifice countless hours of sleep and midterm-studying to the theater gods along the way. Then, dramatists must recruit teams of actors, designers and production staff in order to turn their ideas into reality.

But if the challenges these projects face are unique, so too are the rewards at the end.

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Nick Baskin ’14 was unexpectedly hit with an idea for an original musical during his sophomore fall. Seemingly out of thin air, a melody emerged and floated into his head. As an aspiring composer, Baskin instinctively wrote down the mysterious tune. And instead of throwing the notes into a drawer and stowing them away, he asked himself two questions: “What kind of person would be singing a melody like this, and why?”

Within a few months, Baskin had completed a rough character sketch of Susan, a fictional Physics major at Yale navigating the challenges of junior year. He had also created other characters for Susan to interact with, and by the beginning of his senior year, Baskin finally had in his hands a full draft of a new production, “Window Full of Moths.”

It was a similar kind of serendipity that led Ruby Spiegel ’15 to the concept of her play, “Dry Land,” which would eventually be selected as this spring’s Dramat Experimental Production. Spiegel, who has a self-professed penchant for political controversy, was inspired by an article in The New Republic titled “The Rise of DIY Abortions.” She decided to let go of the play she had been working on at the time in favor of a new one based on the piece and other personal accounts of dangerous abortion methods online.

“I’m really interested in the intricate, intimate realities of everyday experience that we wouldn’t imagine,” she said of the article’s subject matter.

Spiegel spent sophomore spring and the following summer writing a script and researching the details of non-surgical abortions. By the end of the process, she had lost many hours of sleep and accumulated an unusual Google search history, full of nightmarish tales about women performing abortions on themselves. Before completing a draft, Spiegel said she deleted roughly 200 pages worth of writing.

Spiegel was forced to grapple with the often-bleak realities of her research.

“One of the hardest parts about writing is believing that I am not going crazy as a person in spite of the darkness in my work,” she said.

***

While these original productions may differ in scope and content, the playwrights whose works are being performed this season share one experience: that of never having staged their own writing at Yale. “We are all kind of doing it for the first time,” Spiegel said.

Dan Rubins ’16, creator of the musical “The Skylight Room” (which showed in November 2013) thought staging his show would be straightforward, and justifiably so. He had already written all of the script, music and lyrics for it. But a few weeks after finishing the text, he began to have formal conversations with his technical crew, and Rubins quickly became overwhelmed.

“Basically at every production meeting, I’d hear about another piece of production or stagecraft that was being added on — the few chairs that were planned were now a full set, now we’ll have period costumes, we’re getting six projectors, and so on,” he recalled.

His show was growing more complex each day, and Rubins found himself terrified. He did not have the time to oversee every aspect of his production, nor did he understand all of the technical elements that it required.

“When you create something that’s so new, you feel that you want as much control as possible,” he said. “But as the process went on, I was getting less and less.”

Unsure of what the future would hold for his brainchild, Rubins decided to entrust his production team with much of the decision-making. This choice yielded positive results, from the orchestration of his score to the addition of elaborate image projections around the venue.

These independent production elements allowed Rubins to see his own creation in a new light.

“Hearing orchestrations for music you’ve written is like clicking the ‘Enhance’ button on Photoshop on a photo you’ve taken,” Rubins said. “It’s still your photo, but there’s new colors and new stories you didn’t know were there.”

***

Support from Yale’s performing arts community is essential for playwrights hoping to realize their creative visions.

When Laurel Durning-Hammond ’14 and Alex Ratner ’14 approached Theater Studies lecturer Annette Jolles ’91 in the fall of 2012 with an idea for a musical, they knew they would need to gather a large team. Their proposal was shortly accepted by the Shen Curriculum for Musical Theater at Yale as a production seminar, which gives students course credit for enrolling in the class and participating in the show. It was the first time that a student-written musical had been accepted as the basis for such a course.

While Durning-Hammond and Ratner were tasked with recruiting the majority of their production team — roughly a dozen students — they had little trouble putting together a crew because of their strong connections within the theater community.

Persuading students to commit their time to a play of no established reputation, with a potential for failure, can pose a challenge. Several student playwrights interviewed said it is helpful to have friends in the performing arts who trust in their abilities enough to journey through uncharted territory.

Spiegel convinced two members of her theater group “Common Room,” as well as her friend and former Whiffenpoof Henry Gottfried ’14, to participate in her production. She said Gottfried agreed to serve as the play’s director before even seeing her script. Between the two of them, Spiegel and Gottfried called on other students they knew, filling their cast and crew lists without difficulty.

The importance of having a strong network in the theater community was especially apparent in the case of Sunwoo and Jung. An art major and a Spanish major respectively, neither has been particularly active in the theater scene, which posed a large obstacle for them in the recruitment process.

“It’s hard for people to commit to this project when they don’t even know who we are,” Sunwoo said.

But luckily for Sunwoo and Jung, there were risk-takers to be found in the undergraduate performing arts community who are willing to dress up like lamps and vacuums, as they will do in “Household.” After sending over 100 emails in search of student actors, musicians and designers, the duo finally assembled their cast and crew.

“There are so many talented people here that someone will want to work on your show,” Baskin said.

***

Of the original student works that have undergone the production process, each faced its own unique obstacles and anxiety-inducing moments. While all of them ultimately dazzled audiences, the cast and crew of these shows remember all too well the nerve-wracking moments when their chances of achieving success seemed uncertain at best.

While Abigail Carney ’15 and Elliah Heifetz ’15 entered production following a fairly smooth writing process, they returned to campus after winter break with only three weeks to put the entire show together. The team set for themselves an extremely tight schedule, scrambling to fulfill the many technical and artistic demands of the show. But when the lights in the Crescent Theater illuminated the stage on the night of Feb. 6, everything was in place.

“It was pretty insane trying to put up a musical in three weeks, especially since we were still making changes to it at the last minute,” Carney recalled.

But the insanity that drove the team to persevere ultimately rewarded the cast and crew with a successful show, so successful that Carney and Heifetz are planning to propose “Dust Can’t Kill Me” as a production for the New York International Fringe Festival, the largest multi-arts festival in North America. Not long ago, Marina Keegan ’12’s “Independents,” another original Yale folk musical, won Best Overall Production at the Fringe.

In the future, Yalies may have to take an Amtrak train into Manhattan if they wish to see “Dust Can’t Kill Me,” but fans of Carney and Heifetz will also have something else to look forward to. The two dramatists have already begun writing their next musical.

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